Five Things the United States Did Right

One of the greatest strengths the United States has constitutes its ability to admit mistakes – to apologize and acknowledge that America has not always been right, and that it has sometimes done things terribly wrong. This capacity has always served the country well; if America has often traveled down the wrong road, it has even more often corrected its path.

Yet although people do the country a great service in perceiving in faults, sometimes the criticism goes a bit too far.

Take my college, for instance, a great institution which I love – but which exemplifies this excessive self-criticism. I have taken classes in which professors have labeled America a nation founded upon “white supremacy.” Another course, supposedly chronicling America’s history, turned out to be a litany of how the United States had oppressed blacks, women, Native Americans, Hispanics, Asians, the poor, homosexuals, Third World countries, the environment, and everything in between.

I have conversed with friends convinced that the United States has hurt the world far more than it has helped it. I know students so blinded by bitterness and hatred for America’s wrongdoings that it is frightening and very sad – who find racism and oppression in every TV show or every action of the Republican Party. Sometimes I feel the blindness creeping on myself.

So in the spirit of fighting this blindness, here are five things America has done right:

5. Acknowledging its wrongs. Although this post is a reaction to this gone too far, America’s ability to self-criticize still constitutes a substantial strength. Few other countries are as ready to accept error as the United States. While Germany unconditionally views its actions during WWII as a national failure, Japan still honors its war criminals. Britain may admit colonialism was wrong, but many in the country still hold pride in the days when self-determination was denied to half the world.

4. Technological innovation. The United States has developed a number of inventions and innovations which have greatly improved living standards. Whether it was through inventing the light bulb or developing the Internet (for which America was largely responsible), America’s creations are responsible for bettering the lives of billions.

3. Democracy. Although its backing for democracy has not been perfect, in the aggregate democracy is better off with America in the world.  The American Revolution and its revolutionary ideals played a vital factor in spreading democracy and catalyzing the momentous French Revolution. America expanded the right to vote faster than almost every other country (Germany, for instance, only first gained democracy in the 1920s). As a well-working liberal democracy, the United States functions as an inspiration for many other countries. Even if the American government may not support their specific cause (e.g. during the Cold War), many activists for democracy still see America as an example to light their path.

2. Being on the right side of history. In the great conflicts of the 20th century, the United States has generally fought for the right side. America may have made mistakes fighting Nazism or communism, but the overall cause was the more just alternative. It always despised the monarchy which took Europe so long to overthrow. And while America may have dabbled in colonialism, its hostility to European imperialism sealed the fate of their dying empires.

1. Treatment of minorities. This may sound strange, given that so many of America’s wrongs have involved its minorities. Yet while discrimination and subtle racism still burden the lives of millions of minority citizens, at the same time those minorities have far more opportunity than they would have in any other country. America is more generous to immigrants than almost every country in the world – one of its greatest advantages. France and Germany still do not consider their immigrants citizens even after three generations. In China Sun Yat-sen still called the Manchus foreigners three hundred years after they first entered China. In the United States, by contrast, it only takes one generation to become American. For larger groups the process is longer – Jews, Irish, Italians, and Slavs were considered foreign for many years. Today the same applies to Hispanics. Yet eventually Hispanics will be considered as white as the Irish are today.

One group, of course, will never be classified as white – African Americans (and probably Asian-Americans), who have the greatest claim to grievance against America. Yet while the United States enslaved and segregated its black citizens, it also elected a black president in 2008. Blacks have power of sorts today, and the United States has made sure that their story is a central part of its history. Ask Americans to name the greatest American of the past century, and many will probably say MLK. Ask Americans to name the best president, and they will say the one who freed the slaves. This may sound like small consolation to the millions of blacks struggling under the yoke of poverty today. Perhaps a better one is this: in no other country I can name has a dominant majority elected a member of its impoverished minority as president.

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6 Responses to Five Things the United States Did Right

  1. David Byron says:

    E.C. I get the impression you’re too opinionated relative to your own knowledge to be of much use to me or to be able to get much use from me. Africa and Asia were not colonized but conquered. The difference is that in the New World the native populations were largely eliminated and replaced by settlers. I suggest you read “Guns, Germs and Steel” by Jared Diamond on the subject.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guns,_Germs,_and_Steel

    On the topic of racism and US history I suggest the first five chapters (especially chapter two) of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States; it is on line here:

    http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/zinncolorline.html

    People tend to be more open to listening to stuff if they read in a book, so perhaps that will work for you.

  2. Student says:

    Alright! I’m back with some time to actually respond to your points.

    Although David Byron does bring up some kind of valid points, I disagree with him on quite a few things. His claim that America pretty much invented racism is a bit silly, and frankly I don’t think the question of which country invented racism is at all productive. He also implies that it’s a means of control over the working class, which is true to some extent, since race and class are often times very closely linked, but he’s missing a very large part of the picture. Racism is complicated, and isn’t as simple as a means to enforce class division.

    Anyway, I really want to respond to your specific points.

    I’ll start with 1. I think you have a point that the Unite States may be doing better than much of the rest of the world, but the condition here is hardly worth celebrating. I certainly wouldn’t put it on a list of “things that America did right.” This is a false implication. Just because we’re screwing up less than the rest of the world doesn’t mean that we’re doing things right. I’m sure you’re aware of what’s happening in Arizona right now. State encouraged racial profiling and a very blatant disregard of basic civil liberties. This is hardly “subtle racism.”

    I also dislike your argument about President Obama. I certainly do agree that it’s great progress to have elected a Black president, but this kind of an argument encourages complacency. It doesn’t negate the fact that racism is still a very big deal. Perhaps you don’t intend it, but this argument encourages a kind of “see, we’ve made progress; racism isn’t that big of an issue anymore” mentality. Your argument implies that having opportunities is the same as equality, which is false. I love that here in America there are incredible opportunities for people of all sorts, and that’s why I think this is such a great place, but just because minorities have opportunities it doesn’t follow that they have an equal status. White privilege is still very much a reality.

    To say that minorities only experience “subtle racism” belittles the very real struggles that people of color face on a day to day basis. I don’t know what you think of as racism, but it really is everywhere. Spend a few minutes to read some articles on http://www.racialicious.com/ to see how big of a problem racism still is.

    As for number 2, I’m a bit repulsed by the idea of “being on the right side of history.” Once again, things are incredibly complicated. Far more often than not, right and wrong are very difficult or impossible to discern. And frankly, you’re just plain wrong about America only “dabbling in colonialism.” The US is a country founded on colonialism. We’re all living here today because of the Native American genocide. If you look up statistics on current Native American communities you’ll find that in terms of health, wealth, education, or mostly any measure of standards of living they are far worse off than the general population. This is an issue that never rises to the consciousness of the general public.

    For number 3, Democracy is good. I like it. However, the current state of democracy here in the US is very problematic. I have questions about the extent to which politicians are actually representing us. There are a lot of very powerful, moneyed interests out there, and they seem to be exerting quite a bit of influence over those who run the nation, often at the expense of either the general public or other nations.

    For number 4, I mostly agree. The United States has some of the best educational opportunities and institutions in the world, and as a result, we’ve been producing countless technological innovations. However, I would add to this the fact that the US has one of the best entrepreneurial cultures in the world. Oftentimes this is in spite of our government, but somehow it’s here.

    Finally, for number 5, I kind of agree. We have a lot of freedom to acknowledge our mistakes, but that doesn’t mean that we’re doing a particularly good job of it. The government sure as hell isn’t.

  3. E C says:

    To David Byron:

    “America almost invented racism as a means of elite control of the working class”

    You have got to be kidding me. You missed the entire saga of European colonization of Asia and Africa and how racism was used to economically exploit Africans and Asians. As for the domestic working class: the US was the only country that had ethnic and racial diversity in its working class. No other country allowed that type of diversity, and so separating workers among racial lines wasn’t an issue in other countries.

    “Together with it’s many wars murdering millions upon millions of people”

    What about the colonial wars in which Europeans killed millions of Africans and Asians? What about Nazi Germany and Japan killing tens of millions during World War II? What about the Soviet Union killing millions of Afghans during the 1980’s Afghan War? You don’t consider any of these powers to have been “global evil empires”?

  4. David Byron says:

    I get the impression you really don’t comprehend just how evil the US empire has been and now is. I disagree with all the points you make.

    Point (1,2 & 3) contradicts point (5). If America had ever recognised it’s many wrongs then you would know that points 1,2 and 3 are in fact false. America almost invented racism as a means of elite control of the working class, America has a long history of attacking democracy (meaning rule by the people — ie the workers) and substituting electoral manipulation as a method of giving a patina of legitimacy to elite rule. Together with it’s many wars murdering millions upon millions of people it has clearly been on the wrong side of history, the global evil empire.

    None of these facts can you recognise because far from ever acknowledging this, the US spends billions in propaganda to spread lies about all of this. Most Americans never even suspect the truth about their country giving rise to an under the radar cottage industry of “the hidden truth about XYZ” style books like this one:

    http://www.historyisaweapon.com/zinnapeopleshistory.html

    That level of secrecy and lies about the past and present is quite unlike any other country.

    I suppose (4) is true for what it is worth but would we say the Nazis were good guys because of their technology? It would be different if the US was better at sharing technology but they tend to be offenders in terms of eg demands for medical copyright observation over valuing human life in the third world.

  5. inoljt says:

    Thanks for that very insightful reply; your responses are probably some of the most sophisticated I’ve read so far in blogging. It’s wonderful to have a reader like you willing to make such a substantial, well-written critique like that. I appreciate it a lot, and I love the conversation.

    Anyways, I do think that in many ways, our capacity to self-criticize is a wonderful thing, truly “absolutely necessary for progress.” That capacity is part of what helps keep America on its toes, so-to-speak.

    On the other hand, in some environments the self-criticism goes too far. When a professor can spend an entire semester charging the United States of crimes, without having one good thing to say about the nation we live in, I view that as going too far. When you have students so critical of America that they cannot bear to hold an American flag – students who begin to wish their nation never existed in the first place – I view that as going too far.

    You are very right that I am “taking issue with these kinds of views on an emotional level.” Much of this post does indeed constitute an emotional reaction to what I see. I just don’t think it’s good for anybody when I see what I see.

  6. Student says:

    I don’t see how this self criticism you seem to dislike so much is in any way excessive. Frankly, I think that too few people are as critical of the state of this country as they should be.

    Comparatively speaking, the United States is probably one of the best places in the world to live. We have a lot of personal freedoms and opportunity. Just because we may be doing better than the rest of the world in a lot of respects, there’s no reason to become complacent. The state of our country is very far from ideal.

    To recognize the harm that US government policies and US societal norms are doing to both the rest of the world and to marginalized groups within the US itself is hardly being blinded by bitterness. If anything, it’s the opposite of blindness. A good understanding of the actual extent of the problems we face here in the US is absolutely necessary for progress. To learn about these systems of oppression and to try to address them is far more productive than simply celebrating what we’re all doing right. Would you rather be memorizing the names and dates of treaties in your history classes?

    The claim that the United States was founded upon white supremacy doesn’t seem very controversial to me. The nation’s “founding fathers” were mostly slave owning wealthy white males. Perhaps they had in mind the ideals of personal liberties, self determination, and a democratic process, but none of that was extended to those who weren’t white, educated, wealthy males at the time of the founding. It took a long, long time for that to change. Perhaps you say that the US extended the vote faster than most other countries. But it took until 1920 for women to be guaranteed the right to vote. That’s nowhere near as quick as it should have been.

    Perhaps you’re taking issue with these kinds of views on an emotional level? The way you’re writing seems to give that impression. The way you characterize the United States as if it is an individual entity. “The Unites States is oppressing blacks”, or “the United States is willing to accept errors…”

    The US is nation. There are quite a few different levels of US government, there are lots of different people living in the US, there are countless groups, subgroups, ways of associating and levels of societal organization. There’s a huge variation in the views people hold. I’m sure you’re very well aware of this. You have to be careful about trying to characterize the US as if it is some single, united entity. Things are very complicated.

    I have a lot more to say regarding your specific points, but I might get to that at some other point. As a college student, I have much work to attend to.

    Thank you for the thought provoking writing though.

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